It recently occurred to me that there is a growing number of people on the planet who have never even seen the stars. People who have spent their entire lives in cities clouded with light and air pollution, where sidewalk trees have all been carefully handpicked based on maintenance costs and the only wildlife that flourishes are the sewer rats that we sneeringly label as ‘pests’.
In this obscure, artificial world, it is little wonder that people are becoming more and more out of touch with nature. When everything you see around you is steel and concrete and you’re caught up with economics and electronics, the plight of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker or the Western Lowland Gorilla may seem unfortunate, but altogether irrelevant to your life.
It’s this thought that has plagued me for so many years. It’s not that humans are inherently bad or deliberately ignorant, we’re just bombarded with issues that we know we should care about, but just don’t see how caring about these issues could possibly fit in with the billion other things that are rattling around in our brains.
And so I went to Africa with little on my mind except that I wanted to see badass wild animals and drink copious amounts of G+T - possibly at the same time. When the Corona Open in Jeffreys Bay finished, Matt and I had an extra 5 days until our flight back home, so we Googled the most luxurious safari parks we could find and were a tap away from booking when fate stepped in our way in the form of Mick Fanning. Mick had just been on his second trip with conservation organisation WildArk to visit their latest project just outside of Hoedspruit, South Africa. With world surfing champ Tyler Wright, UFC Middleweight Champ Luke Rockhold and Aussie rugby legend David Pocock, he was thoroughly schooled in the conservation challenges facing South Africa and the world, and the way that WildArk are tackling these issues with heroic force.
After a few beers, Mick can be a pretty persuasive man. He insisted, nay, demanded that we throw in the fluffy white towel of our luxury safari dreams and embark on a more meaningful journey. A quick flight to Joburg and a 5 hour drive to the middle of nowhere later, the co-founders of WildArk, Mark and Sophie Hutchinson welcomed us with open arms that promptly threw us into the back of a safari truck. There’s no time to waste when you’ve only got a few meagre days to figure out how to save the planet.
What followed were three awe-inspiring days that took us through WildArk’s Pridelands wildlife conservancy; into Kruger National Park to experience both its magnificence and heart wrenching destruction; and high into the clouds to understand the incredible bravery and skill that goes into Kruger’s war on poaching.
In the end, it was our late-night, by-the-campfire, red-wine-in-hand conversations that gave me the most to think about. As somebody who has spent a good chunk of their life studying complex economic theory and trying to wrap my head around how we can save a world as f*cked up as ours - it was like a cool dip in the ocean to hear Mark and Sophie’s attitude towards the environmental perils that we face. Far from being overwhelmed, the pair have unwavering confidence in the capabilities of humankind, and helped me to break it all down into a few easily digestible, bite-sized pieces:
- We need more space for wild things
The crux of so many of our planet’s problems lies in the simple fact that we have destroyed a huge amount of its biodiversity hotspots. This threatens the fragile balance that keeps our planet healthy and prevents us from experiencing the realities of one of those cringeworthingly-awesome disaster movies where the air we breathe turns toxic and our soils are no longer able to produce food. In order to keep these scenarios on the silver screen rather than the evening news, the core mission of WildArk is to invest in the conservation of crucial natural hotspots.
The Pridelands wildlife conservancy in Hoedspruit is their first physical venture into this space. Formerly a 4500-acre game-hunting park, Mark and Sophie are turning this into a safe haven for wild animals that will shortly (we’re talking days, not years) open its gates to the millions of friendly Kruger National Park residents. If you can imagine opening your beloved home to a herd of wild elephants, you might begin to understand some of the bittersweet emotions that are involved in this transition. Yes, elephants are cool as shit. Yes, they play an integral role in everything from seed dispersal to nutrient cycling. But yes, they're not exactly going to tread lightly while they're at it. Make sure you’re watching how it all unfolds online at WildArk.com.
The Pridelands are just one piece of the WildArk global puzzle. They hope to start similar projects all over the world and are constantly on the lookout for sexy landscapes that are home to threatened species. And while Pinky & the Brain style global domination is certainly the ultimate goal, new research out of Yale University suggests that the use of just 5% more global land for species protection could very well protect the ecosystem of the whole planet. While 5% may not seem like much, the need for immediate action is essential and it's Mark and Sophie's hope that their foray into the world of global real estate moguls can prove the point that saving the planet can actually be a whole lotta fun.
2. We need to think more carefully about the choices we make in our everyday lives
Aside from the fun, conservation can also be profitable if you go about it the right way. It's sad but true that our world leaders care more about lush green bank notes than lush green forests, but if there's money to be made in conservation you can bet your ass that this will be a global game changer on a grand scale. While the core focus is always going to be conservation, WildArk is moving towards a 'for-profit' business model that turns the idea that 'doing good' is just for charities on its head. Through digital platforms and ecotourism ventures, they are handing the power back to consumers and creating a tempting new space for businesses to make money from doing the right thing.
Our everyday choices are a hell of a lot more powerful than we think, and the heads of multinational corporations around the globe are watching our every move like vultures circling the savannah. It does matter who you choose to follow on Instagram. It does matter whether you pay the extra dollar for the earth-friendly detergent. And if you’re lucky enough to be doing some travelling, it does matter if you choose to put your money towards ecotourism ventures.
If every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in, make sure you're using your vote wisely.
3. We need to spend more time in wild spaces
Like I said in the beginning - it’s hard to place value on something that has no relevance to your life. The more we spend time in wild spaces, the more we value them, and the more likely we are to engage with conservation efforts and genuinely get behind those who are driving them.
Understandably, the vast majority of us would be pretty hesitant to spend our hard-earned $$ on African safaris and Arctic expeditions, so fortunately the answer may be found a little bit closer to home. We don’t need to travel to the other side of the planet to appreciate the miraculous beauty and colossal importance of nature. There are wild spaces within everybody’s grasp if we just take a moment to look.
That feeling that you get when you wind down the car window and smell the fresh summer air rather than the stagnant air-conditioning; or when you take a moment out of your hectic day to sit on a park bench with your feet in the grass - it's all about awareness of the world around us and not being able to imagine a life without clean oceans and fresh air and wild animals.
‘Awareness raising’ has a bit of a bad rep these days, but it’s first step towards action and it’s a huge pillar in WildArk’s grand philosophy. Through sharing positive conservation stories from around the world, to teaching the next generation about the weird & wonderful species that they are trying to protect, they are building a community of engaged wildlife warriors who actually give a shit about the future of our planet.
And so after 7 years of university education and a HELP debt that makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry - I've finally found a shred of hope that we can save our planet for future generations to enjoy.
And in case you were wondering, I did manage to drink copious amounts of G+T while I was at it..
Words // Anna Jordan @annajordan89
Photography // Corey Wilson @corey_wilson
Photography // Kirstin Scholtz @kirstinscholtz
Special thanks to WildArk @wild.ark for sharing their amazing world with us.